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January 18, 2005

Summers time at the Hub

Statement of President Lawrence H. Summers on Women in Science.

No Break in the Storm Over Harvard President's Words.

OK, as president of Harvard, this was a stupid thing to say. That's pretty obvious. This sort of stuff is left to academics who have tenure and who are battling it out in journals. In fact, some of the scholars Summers cited are doing just that.

The interview in The New York Times illustrates some funny misconceptions. For example: "Among his hypotheses were that...innate sex differences might leave women less capable of succeeding at the most advanced mathematics...." I suspect that >99% of people really can't hack it in the field of algebraic topology. So couching it in terms of "women" is a problem, as it frames it as if this is an issue that is generally relevant to all of us. The difference between men and women might be, for example, 99.8% of men can't hack it in algebraic tpology, while 99.9% of women can't hack it. On a person-on-the-street level, it really doesn't matter much, though the numbers above imply that men are twice as likely to be able to hack it as women, so in the realm of advanced mathematics specifically it matters.

A female scientist says: '"If you were a woman scientist and had two competing offers and knew that the president of Harvard didn't think that women scientists were as good as men, which one would you take?"' Well, he didn't say that, did he? Summers said that the reason there were fewer female scientists in mathematical fields (this is important, as many of the quotes are expanding Summers' intent as if he meant to apply his hypothesis to all of academia to better tar & feather him) is that male variance is greater, the implication being that the women who are in mathematical fields are competent because the stanards are applied equally.

Overall, I guess bad for Harvard (fewer $$$ in donations) and bad for Larry Summers. But good for candid thinking. Perhaps Summers is preprogrammed for altruism, for it might negatively impact his fitness, but I suspect this sort of behavior is what will be needed to open up the intellectual field to more ideas.

Update: Comment over at Yglesias:


So if I believe that the 80/20 male/female ratio in a field at Harvard implies subtle discrimination, then what of the fact that there are almost no Evangelical Christians on the Harvard faculty, in spite of the fact that they account for about 20% of the population? Or the fact that Harvard has almost no faculty belonging to the political party that has won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections?

Posted by razib at 11:25 PM